Spring is finally here and it won’t be long before the soft ice cream stands are open. Soon we will be driving at night with the windows down and that is when we’ll hear it — a chorus of tiny voices drifting out of ponds, fields, and hidden pools in the forest.
On quiet nights these songs can travel half a mile through the woods, drift in through your bedroom window and gently put you to sleep. I’m speaking of the songs of spring peepers.
Spring peepers are members of the chorus frog family and have been given the scientific name Pseudacris crucifer. The genus name “pseudacris” is from the Greek words “pseudes,” meaning “false” and “akris,” meaning “locust.” The scientific name “crucifer” is a Latin word that means “cross bearer,” which is clearly a reference to the markings on the peeper’s back.
Unlike green frogs and bullfrogs, spring peepers do not spend the winter buried in the mud at the bottom of a pond. Instead, they curl up under the leaves of the forest floor and drift into a state of suspended animation. Since they are so close to the surface, they are usually the first frogs to come out of hibernation.
Once the warm weather has settled in and a warm spring rain has fallen, the peepers head for marshes, ponds or the temporary pools of spring runoff known as vernal pools for their short breeding season.
Mammals exhibit a form of sexual dimorphism (a fancy way of saying different body shapes for different sexes) that we are all familiar with. Males tend to be larger because they are generally the ones who do all of the fighting for territories and mates. As a result, it is generally the largest males that have the most reproductive success, so their sons tend to be larger and their daughters tend to mate with larger males.
Amphibians, however, have a different approach to life. Sperm cells are small and even the smallest males can produce millions of them. Eggs, on the other hand, take up quite a bit of room and quickly fill a female’s body. So it is the production of eggs that is the only limiting factor for a frog’s reproductive capacity. Logically, a larger body can hold more eggs, so the larger females have an advantage.
Female peepers are still not very large (the big ones measure in at an inch in length) so they never lay that many eggs. The eggs themselves are tiny and resemble the small seeds of plants. They may be laid singly on the leaves at the bottom of pools, but sometimes they are laid in small masses on twigs. A protective covering that resembles gelatin surrounds each egg.
The young peepers develop fast. Vernal pools tend to disappear quickly so speed is of the essence. The eggs hatch 12 days after they are laid, and the small pollywogs quickly develop into adults. Of all of the life stages, the pollywogs are probably the easiest to observe if you sit next to a woodland pool and watch very carefully.
If you like adventure, I would suggest that the next warm evening be one spent hunting peepers instead of watching TV. Go find a quiet country road and see if you can locate a group of peepers singing in the evening air. And just to reward yourself for being such an intrepid explorer, go ahead and get some soft ice cream too.
Bill Danielson is a professional nature photographer and author living in Altamont. Contact him at www.speakingofnature.com.